Based on a True Sundance

Great Features at a Great Festival, All About Meeeeeee

Photo of Mindy Kaling in ‘Late Night’ by Emily Aragones.

Write what you know, as the saying goes. But at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, things got ridiculous. Movie after movie was based on a real person. It was a running joke that end credits kicked off with video footage of the actual subject: a grandma in the Asian tearjerker The Farewell; the big-boned woman on a diet in the big-hearted Brittany Runs a Marathon, Britain’s Iraq war whistleblower in the jangly geopolitical thriller Official Secrets.

And if there wasn’t video footage, then that real-life star ended up onstage afterwards, like when Congressional staffer Daniel Jones joined the filmmakers of Scott Z. Burns’ wonkapalooza exposé of the CIA’s torture policy, The Report. Even better, the subjects of some Sundance movies were actually in the movie. Comedy writer Mindy Kaling plays a comedy writer in the deliciously sharp talk-show evisceration Late Night. Shia LaBeouf appears as his abusive father in Honey Boy, the cinematic roman à clef he also scripted. And Jimmie Fails co-wrote and plays a character named Jimmie Fails in the dreamlike auto-portrait The Last Black Man In San Francisco. To thine own self be true—especially when it involves a shot at Sundance.

The Souvenir

Towering above them all was Joanna Hogg’s stunning The Souvenir, a beautifully brittle romance based on her own life as a shy film student in 1980s London. Honor Swinton-Byrnes (daughter of Tilda Swinton), new to love and eager to please, is devastating as the amorous ingénue entangled with a lockjawed Oxbridge snoot who also happens to be a heroin addict. (Pardon my track marks, dearie, and do pass the crumpets.) Shooting at a remove, Hogg’s cameras almost seem to be eavesdropping on the couple as they engage friends and each other in postgraduate puffery: regurgitated disquisitions about art, life, and politics that mask as well-earned profundity. Meanwhile, true insights into life’s psychological horrors churn with bubbling rage beneath the surface. A looted apartment. Discarded drug paraphernalia. That shattered mirror. Emotional trauma’s eruptions dot the veneer of posh London civility.

The Farewell

Courtesy of Big Beach.

The Farewell deals with similar repression, though with a rueful smile. Lulu Wang shows masterful empathy in her hilariously bittersweet look at a Chinese family who refuses to tell their matriarch that she’s got Stage 4 cancer. Granddaughter Billi (Hollywood breakout star Awkwafina), whose parents immigrated to New York years ago, is gobsmacked by the dishonestly. But, apparently, it’s a cultural thing in the Middle Kingdom. And she’s forced to play along, if only so she can have a few more precious moments with the charming, oblivious dead woman walking. Wang’s direction is admirably understated, quietly capturing the film’s inherent absurdities without broad hamming or jokey ribbing. The long goodbyes, pregnant regrets, and welling confessions make for remarkable drama.

Comedies and Memoirs and Comedy Memoirs

For pure volume of laughs, Nisha Ganatra’s workplace-diversity rib-tickler Late Night was unrivalled in its rat-a-tat look at the white, privileged, male-dominated world of network talk show comedy. Emma Thompson plays a once-reigning, now-waning host with a 30-year legacy behind her and imminent cancellation in her future. And this rare chance for the Oscar winner to exercise her comic chops results in a full-throated performance of screwball hilarity. But Kaling’s candy-coated, winningly progressive script is the real star, a delightful balance of high-minded wordplay, goofy middlebrow gags and even the occasional poop joke.

Speaking of subversive, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon looks like an eye-rolling Biggest Loser rom-com but beguilingly pulls off deeper depths. Jillian Bell is the titular roadrunner, a zaftig millennial with no zero self-confidence who jogs as a way to reset her life. Spoiler alert: just losing weight won’t make you a better person. But the script is smarter than expected, the characters are meatier than they seem, and the whole exercise in exercising ends up much more emotionally rewarding than it should be.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natasha Braier

The same could be said for Honey Boy, a stylish couch-session-cum-feature directed by Alma Har’el. Working from Shia LaBeouf’s screenplay, the impressionistic film explores his tortured years as a child actor living under the thumb of an abusive, alcoholic father. Talk about therapeutic role-playing: Lucas Hedges plays the adult Shia, while LaBeouf is his own dad in flashbacks. The result could have been a self-defeating, self-fellating ode to solipsism. But Har’el hits disarming grace notes in the haggard story, while LaBeouf’s chain-smoking, bitch-slapping former rodeo clown is a remarkably empathetic portrait. Think less story and more catharsis, with a chicken leitmotif for good measure.

Most disarming of all was The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Joe Talbot’s funny, poignant, surreal look at gentrification through the lens of dissipated family legacy. Jimmie Fails stars as Jimmie Fails, a displaced Bay Area soul obsessed with a Victorian house that was his childhood home. White folks live there now, in a once-minority neighborhood that long ago priced out all but the moneyed class. But Jimmie still treks over to the dilapidated manor, making façade repairs and repainting the window trims until its owners chase him away. Talbot and Fails, who scripted the film together, take this wisp of a premise and weave a remarkably sturdy study of rootless oblivion. The film’s wonderfully offbeat rhythms offer a skewed cadence that’s half-elegiac, half-celebratory. Salvation means holding on to who you are, while letting go of what that made you who you were.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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